Green Revolution 2.0: It’s no longer just about boosting food

At the 50th-anniversary meeting of the main body that launched the Green Revolution, a range of researchers and policymakers made clear that the focus of their efforts is no longer just raising crop yields to “feed the world,” as their mantra had been for decades. Production is now just a starting point for a range of food issues faced by developing countries.

The meeting underway in Mexico City is for the International Wheat and Maize Improvement Center (known by its Spanish acronym CIMMYT), which was founded by Norman Borlaug in 1966. CIMMYT aimed to raise food production in developing countries by breeding high-yielding hybrids of corn and wheat that required chemical inputs as well as irrigation. Although the effort that began in Mexico and spread to Asia largely succeeded — Borlaug was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize for his work in 1970 — the Green Revolution has since come under criticism for a narrow focus on yields rather than broader environmental, nutritional and socioeconomic goals.

Speakers at the gathering of more than 1,000 researchers made clear that the focus on production had to continue, and in fact improve, but it was no longer enough. Factors such as the health of soils, drought tolerance, climate change, carbon sequestration, poverty reduction, more democratic approaches to land ownership and even mass migrations and refugee crises driven by food conflicts had to be taken into greater account.

“The next 50 years are going to be much, much more complicated,” said Juergen Voegele, senior director of Agriculture Global Practice at the World Bank, and council chair of the CGIAR System, the main body of public agricultural research institutions .

He noted that early Green Revolution yield gains of 2-4 percent per year were ahead of population growth, but now those increases had slowed to 1-1.5 percent. “We’re running as fast as we can but we’re still standing still, actually falling behind,” he said.

Voegele also said that agriculture contributed 25 percent of all global greenhouse gas emissions, and that it would be “impossible” to meet the goal, set by last year’s Paris climate accord, to keep temperature changes well below 2  degrees Celsius, “unless we change the way we produce our food and it’s just not happening. We’re not even at a turning point, we’re still increasing emissions.” Agriculture could account for 70 percent of greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 “if we don’t change,” he said.

He pointed to the massive issue of food waste, the fate of 30-40 percent of all food produced. “If food waste was a country it would be the third-largest [greenhouse gas] emitter after China and U.S.,” he said, due to emissions arising in production, as well as the methane released from decomposing food.

Research at CIMMYT and other global CGIAR institutions, funded largely by governmental aid programs and charitable foundations, amounts to about $1 billion a year, compared to about $35 billion spent on ag research by private firms and government ag programs such as the USDA.

Now that public money has to go farther, Voegele says: “A future global food system needs to create jobs for unemployed youth; we need to reach smallholder farmers, put money in their pockets; and we need to contribute to a more sustainable world and global food system that gives us the nutritional and health outcomes we need.”

Martin Kropff, CIMMYT’s director general, echoed those comments in an interview. “The aim is not just production anymore, although production remains important,” he said. “It’s now a much broader agenda: It’s maize and wheat for improved livelihoods which is a completely different ballgame.”

He pointed to CIMMYT’s efforts to produce bio-fortified cereals, boosting micronutrients such as zinc and iron, which is a major deficiency in the developing world.

“Coming out of poverty, people also may have enough food, but how can it be the right food so we don’t get obesity?” Kropff said. “That’s what we’re starting to look at.”

Lindiwe Majele Sibanda, chief executive officer of the Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Analysis Network, drove home how different this kind of thinking is from the original goals of the Green Revolution. Back then, the expectation was that by raising yields and incomes farmers would be able to send their children to school. “The income was going to go for education, but the health bill started going up,” she said.

That’s because diverse smallholder farms that grew a range of crops shifted focus to hybrid corn, increasing consumption of starch. Incomes rose, but diets grew impoverished. Now there was enough food, but not the right kind.

“We can boast of the yields we have achieved, the poverty reduction, but the monster in the room is stunting. Africa is the museum for childhood stunting. And Asia is the museum for obesity,” she told the audience. “No one food can deliver a healthy diet.”

She challenged the researchers to put health and nutrition at the center of their research agenda. It’s not simply a question of feeding families, she said: “We must move to nourishing families.”

(FERN’s Ag Insider was a media sponsor of the CIMMYT 50 conference, but there was no agreement on covering the event or the scope of coverage.)